Saturday, June 09, 2018


    In 1963, Eydie Gorme had a hit with “Blame it On the Bossa Nova,” a cutie from the prolific Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. She covered the song in Spanish, too. She was a Sephardic Jew who had an early career as a United Nations interpreter.  She often covered songs in foreign languages, but…

    The ANSWER version of the song came from Jackie Mason. This oddity happened because a) Allan Sherman was a big Jewish novelty star singing in a very plain voice, and b) Mason was a hot stand-up in 1963. His career stalled on October 18th, 1964, when he allegedly gave the finger on "The Ed Sullivan Show."  

     The show was running long. Off camera, Ed signaled to Mason that he had to wrap it up. He held up two fingers. Jackie, distracted by this, and annoyed that he had to stop when he was doing so well, made Ed's gesture a part of his act. The crowd roared as Jackie ad-libbed about being given the finger. Jackie gave the two fingers back…and dirty-minded Ed was furious. He thought he only saw a middle finger. It was a “you’ll never work again” moment. It took a long time before Ed grudgingly had Mason back, and Jackie's career recovered. 

    Not dirty like Lenny Bruce, not nearly as political as Mort Sahl, Mason was and is an abrasive wiseguy and a comic truth-teller. A catch-phrase is “Let’s be honest,” and though his act is known for Jew vs Gentile gags, he always fired at multiple targets. He probably ad-libbed “Don’t Blame The Bossa Nova” in a few minutes. The parody version is credited to Mann-Weil, but it’s doubtful those two actually wrote Jackie’s ridiculous lines. 

    Jackie Mason, born Jacov Maza, became a rabbi like his father and three of his brothers. The City College grad had his own congregation, but his comical sermons and humorous way with dealing with every day ironies in life had people suggesting he could be a stand-up comic. 

    In 1955 he began to hone his craft in the Catskill resorts of upstate New York (the “Borscht Belt” as it was called). About five years later he got a major break via The Steve Allen Show. His 1962 album for Verve (who had Sahl, Shelley Berman and Jonathan Winters) was titled “I’m the Greatest Comedian in the World But Nobody Knows It Yet.” 

    Not as “edgy” as Mort Sahl, Mason was edgy enough to get criticism and more. He told some jokes on Frank Sinatra. Why, Jackie asked, did Frank have the “sickness” of needing to go to bed with so many women? Conquest? Yes, it makes more sense than conquering a mountain. But…but…one night he got his face punched and an order: “Lay off the Sinatra jokes.” Was this bit of thuggery directly ordered by Frank, or just some violence from “well-meaning” fans of Sinatra? 

    Mason was invited back on Sullivan’s show twice in 1968 and twice in 1969, the year he made his Broadway debut in “A Teaspoon Every Four Hours,” a mild sitcom-styled play. It was notable for two things. First, it had 97 preview performances (a record that lasted till 2010 when the Spiderman musical needed twice that many to work out the bugs). Second, Jackie’s co-star was the amazingly buxom Lee Meredith (who had a vivid scene in “The Producers” as Bialystock’s secretary). Jackie came out and did some stand-up after the curtain,  to help put the audience in a better mood as they left the theater. Word of mouth still wasn’t too positive, critics were cranky, and the show closed after one official performance.

    Jackie’s attempt at a film career failed as well, although the indie “The Stoolie” (1974) was actually a pretty good movie. Two years later, director John Avildsen scored with another indie movie about an underdog loser, “Rocky.”  Fast forward about 15 tough years, and stand-up was a hot topic, with Richard Pryor, Robin Williams and others doing one-man shows. To the surprise of many, Jackie took his to Broadway and became bigger than he ever was. He would create several sequel shows over the next ten years; fans could buy a 2 CD-R set of each one in the lobby.

    Mason has turned from Democrat to Republican, and the 21st century hasn't been kind to him or his peers. Mort Sahl hasn't been welcomed as a talk show guest since David Letterman had him on...once. Mort streams shows from a tiny theater in Mill Valley, and Jackie tried reaching fans via YouTube. He still performs in Florida and in some clubs in New York and New Jersey.

      A book on Mort Sahl was ridiculously titled “Last Comic Standing.” While Mort is older than Jackie Mason and Bob Newhart, he isn't really still standing. He hobbles out holding a cane, and quickly sits to do an hour of anecdotes. Mason IS still standing when he takes the stage, and yes, still getting big laughs. 

    Happy Birthday, Jackie.   

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